What is the difference between business consulting and business coaching?

Thursday 06 July 2023 -

Rathbone Results discuss the difference between coaching and consulting

Most business leaders are substantial people. They’ve earned their spurs through successes AND by learning from failures to do even greater things. To differing extents, influenced by upbringing, education, career trajectory and personality, they’ve won a following through their ability to inspire with clear vision, their ability to develop relationships and their ability to galvanise themselves and individuals and teams to take effective action. They’ve directed these three sets of abilities – innate and developed - to consistently deliver ambitious goals. Yet, at different times in most leaders’ career trajectories, even the most brilliant have reached out to a consultant or a coach – or both

So, why engage a consultant or a coach, for what, and what is the difference?

Let’s start with a quick answer to the third question: What is the difference between a consultant and a coach? In short: consulting is “done to or for you”, coaching is “done with you”.

Less prosaically, as one client once put it: “When I consult with you, I want your opinion because you are my trusted advisor. When I engage with you as my coach, I know you won’t advise me but help me think clearly.”

To elaborate on this even as we answer “Why engage a consultant or a coach?”, we draw partly on research yet more heavily on reality as the seasoned practitioners that we are: 

Why engage a consultant?

Fundamentally, when hiring a consultant, a business leader is engaging a specialist to address an opportunity or solve a problem. Most likely it's because in-house expertise is insufficient, or capacity is maxed out, or fresh eyes are required. Typically, in consultancy, the core client question is “tell me/us what to do”. To this request the consultant applies their expertise, drawing on their knowledge and/or prior experience. The consultant’s task is to bring their external perspective, their ability to work ON the business and their specialized expertise and hands-on approach to provide specific solutions for the business per se.

Not that consulting is always approached in the same way. Edgar Schein (well published author, MIT Professor and reference on the process of consulting and being a consultant) proposed three models of consultancy that reflect three different consultant mindsets and styles: Expert, Doctor, Process. 

In the first two models, expert and doctor, the consultant comes as a specialist. They focus from the start on the organizational problem(s) as stated by the client. Following quickly, the expert-consultant recommends a solution or the doctor-consultant diagnoses the root issue followed by the appropriate “medicine” (recommended solution).

Depending on the client-consultant contract, implementation of the recommended solution could be left to the client and the competencies and capacity of the core team. Alternatively, the consultant could “join” that team to help them in their implementation of the solution. Either way, expertise in large part remains the domain of the consultant. Often very little knowledge-sharing occurs around how to resolve similar “problems” in the future. Often the leader and core team own and are accountable for implementation of the agreed solution.

The third model of consultancy, the process consulting model, focuses on the process by which organizational issues are solved – not just the diagnosis and solution of opportunities and problems. In process consulting, the client and consultant collaborate throughout the consultancy engagement to find workable solutions. This recognises that the client, not the consultant, is the expert on the organization's culture and the underlying assumptions that determine how those working in the business operate. 

The greatest expertise of the consultant is in how they facilitate the process of discover; it is only in working with the client that the consultant can identify the ideal solution that will work best in the client organisation. Schein suggests that consulting is most effective when consultants begin with process consulting, involving the client in the investigation of the opportunity/problem before moving into diagnosis and solution.

Returning to the original question and going to the bottom line: why engage a consultant? If you have an immediate opportunity or challenge and are up against time, or lack the in-house expertise, or are short of capacity and/or need a fresh pair of expert eyes on the situation, the right consultant will help you unlock potential by delivering a quicker and better solution than you can on your own – with the potential for more strategic wins. With a consultant you are accelerating change. Moreover, if you engage a process consultant, they will give you greater ability to resolve similar future issues without needing to call upon them again and again. 

Why engage a coach?

By contrast, when hiring a business coach, the business leader or team is saying “help me/us think this through, work through this issue”. By working through a series of pertinent questions and carefully listening and positing the occasional observation or hypothesis, the coach draws out of the person being coached their relevant knowledge and expertise so they, the coachee, resolve “the issue”.

Ultimately, the aim of a business coach is to bring out the best in their client, their client team and their client company.

At their best, a business coach will help you gain lasting change by drawing out and unlocking your own ideas, based on your values and convictions, to help you see the bigger picture more clearly, to help you achieve your goals sustainably.

Far from telling the client what to do, a coach helps the client discover their own options, uncover their motives, reach their own decisions, be agents of their own actions, take responsibility for their own choices. The coaching “solution” is for the client more akin to “learning how to fish” than “receiving a fish”.

As an International Coaching Federation certified professional coach, I particularly like ICF’s definition of coaching: “partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential. The process of coaching often unlocks previously untapped sources of imagination, productivity and leadership”.

So, why engage a coach? To unlock the potential in an individual or a team. If you (or someone in your team) as an individual or as a team, have been struggling with a situation that repeats, a coach can help you find your own authentic solutions by helping you lift above the minutia, identify core issues and options, develop clear vision and unlock personal potential for greater long-term effectiveness. As solutions come from the client, commitment to implement those solutions is infinitely greater. And through the process of coaching, the client is enabled to find solutions for themselves going forward.

We have been engaged as a trusted advisor and/or coach in all of the above assignments – and more - so understand the breadth of business consulting and business coaching. If you want to know more about how we can help you and your business unlock potential, as senior seasoned consultants and coaches, book a call …